‘Tattooed Life’ Review

1965. Japan.
Screened at the Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood.
Directed by Seijun Suzuki.

In 1965, we come to a period in which Seijun Suzuki was experiencing frustration with the studio system. In the following two years he would direct TOKYO DRIFTER and BRANDED TO KILL, his two signature classics that also resulted in the termination of his studio career.

But before that happened, in the year after he made GATES OF FLESH, he made TATTOOED LIFE. It’s a very different film than UNDERWORLD BEAUTY, though it’s also about criminals.

Upon orders from his superiors, Hideki Takahashi kills a rival gang boss. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s been set up, and that rivals in his own gang plan to kill him. His younger brother saves him by killing his would-be assassin, and is immediately wracked with guilt. He’s not a gangster at all, he’s a sensitive artist adverse to violence, but he couldn’t just stand by and let his brother be killed. Now the lives of both brothers are in danger from the police, from older brother’s gang, and from the rivals of older brother’s gang. The brothers decide to run away to some place far away. Hearing of their plight, a man agrees to arrange passage for them on a ship. Unfortunately, the man turns out to be a con artist, and the brothers are left stranded. Eventually they are able to find work as miners. They hope to stay just long enough to earn money for their passage. Romantic attraction finds them each, however. Older brother must deal with the persistent entreaties of the mine owner’s playful daughter (Masako Izumi), while younger brother becomes infatuated with the mine owner’s lonely wife. They cross paths with the con artist again, this time allied with a rival gang that wants to take control of the mine. Trouble and retribution await.

For the most part, TATTOOED LIFE unreels in a straightforward way and is shot in a realistic manner. It’s entertaining, and well made, but not exactly spectacular. That is, until near the end when a climactic fight is about to begin. Suddenly, with a clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning, the film departs into a never-never world of primary colors and highly stylized movements. We get one shot from under the combatants, looking up at them through a transparent floor, and many more that feature insanely bold shadows. At the end of the fight scene, we return to reality.

It’s a shocking sequence because it seems to come out of nowhere. According to the program notes, it earned Suzuki “his first warning from the Nikkatsu [studio] bosses to stop pushing the envelope.” The film is solid and worthy as it stands, but that one sequence elevates it to a higher level.

(Originally published by Kung Fu Cult Cinema.)

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